Not all grandmothers are grand, but mine was. She was magnificent. Nothing shocked me in the last days I saw her alive but how beautiful she was, her illness sculpting her face into the countenance of a warrior – the high cheekbones and strong jaw I never knew were hers before they were mine. In a glass coffin in the morgue, dressed in the red and green saree she asked to be laid out in, she seemed to me like the Virgin of Vailankanni: ethereal and tranquil. At her funeral, adorned in turmeric and garlands, she took on the radiance of a more indigenous goddess.
Not all grandmothers are grand, and neither are they mothers – but mine was both. She was the one who raised me, the first arms in which I lay because her daughter was too sick from the Caesarean to hold me. My grandparents’ presence shielded me from the incompetence of my real parents, saving me from suicide in the years when they would halt my education whimsically, split me from my sisters, speak things to me I cannot bear to remember, drive me into deep and chronic depressions. There is so much I never spoke of, from respect for her. There is nobody left for me to hurt now.
She died in a confluence of auspiciousness: in the holy week of Kantha Shasthi, on the pagan festival of Halloween. Her funeral was held not only on Dia de los Muertos but the day that in some years is both Diwali and Kali Puja. A macabre, ingenious, knowing death.
There are as many ways to die as there are to live, and my grandmother died exactly as she had lived: with immense dignity. Crippled from a hip fracture weeks before, at the mercy of nurses and diapers, losing consciousness in her last two days and attached to machines for her kidneys, liver and lungs – I believe she chose to die contentedly, rather than struggle any longer in such humiliating dependence. She knew her time had come. She saw ancestor spirits, and twinkling lights. She gave instructions.
She died as she had lived, and how. By my age, she had already experienced the ultimate duality: the birth of twins; the boy alive, the girl dead. Pregnant with her fourth child and waking to a snake coiled around her leg, she kicked it off as easily as she chased crabs on the beach. She had premonitory dreams (one of many things I inherited). She held a community together through assassination attempts on my grandfather, his imprisonment, black magic, innumerable tragedies and joys. Wife of a man who was revolutionary, mayor, minister and ambassador, she was a matriarch in the true sense, affecting change through love, not anger. A divided Sri Lanka was as unimaginable to her as it is to me.
Somehow, despite knowing only Tamil, she could engage anybody in conversation. She loved gossip – everything from the dictator’s wife who told her that “he” was a mama’s boy to the young couple sharing her ward whose hugging annoyed her. There is a photo of her somewhere standing in front of the Eiffel Tower in goofy glasses.
She left her thali to me. There is no material object more precious to a woman of her background and generation than the nuptial chain. This is a gesture so profound that I think I will always be uncovering meaning for it.
The day before she died, I knew she would not survive the night. All year long I knew she was dying, and carried this fear within me constantly, almost waiting for it. I am as happy now as I am sad. My grandmother’s death freed her from her pain – and it will free me from mine. In death, she has given me just as much as she did in life.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.